The dark pit of totalitarianism is never so fun filled as when it is pondered over in song, dance and pop culture references. That is the take away from The Travels, a clever political cartoon of an entry in this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Taking place in the “U.S. of A” of a not too distant future, the country is in the firm control of Mr. Ruler, a masked and disembodied head seen only on TV. His minister of propaganda, Mr. Travel (J. Anthony Crane) is the axis upon which the show rotates. As the host of Travelbration!, the country’s only TV show, he is a smug and prejudiced Mr. Rogers, explaining to the kiddies the filthy habits of the French. Off-screen, he is an absentee father, a negligent husband to his long suffering wife (Luba Mason), and a closeted homosexual with cravings that fluctuate between kinky and truly disturbing. Playing opposite Matthew Patrick Quinn as Warren, Mr. Travel’s partner both on TV and under the sheets, Crane shows depth, transforming from huckster to a horndog in a scene filled with fey foreplay, to a lost soul who almost finds humanity, to a stone cold villain.
The punishment for free thinking in this upside down America involves being harnessed in accessories straight from a medical supply depot. Mr. Travel’s foil, his young and rebellious daughter, Teeny (Holland Mariah Grossman), has been so continually engrossed in poetry and movies that she is burdened from head to toe in these “items of support.” Wearing an eye patch, thick glasses, crutches, a head bandage and a neck brace she nonetheless carries on, finding hope in her secret viewings of Pretty Woman and Grease, and fighting for the right to be heard, especially when what she has to say is communicated in a crazed diatribe of dozens of classically passionate film moments (“I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”).
Teeny is fond of quoting E.E. Cummings, and it is clear from the language of the play that its author and lyricist, Aaron Ricciardi, has an appreciation for poetry. Employing a vocabulary somewhere between Cummings and Dr. Seuss, spouses are “designated life companions,” servants are “domicile disinfectors,” and those who are wrongful are those who have a case of “the travels,” they “wonder and wander and think outside of boxes.”
The show also benefits from a triumvirate of Broadway caliber voices. As Teeny, Grossman is a wonderful walking sight gag working with that ridiculous amount of costuming. She is, as the character name suggests, short of stature, yet all powerful and clear as a bell in her featured number, “Little Lemmings.” Mason sings Mrs. Travel with a world weariness that is tinged with both anger and elegance. And Michelle Rios brings an operatic gusto to her part as the housemaid Consuela, a once privileged Ecuadorian who falls from grace.
Described in the program as an epic play with songs, it is indeed correct to say that The Travels is not quite yet a full-fledged musical. The biggest downfall of the current production is that so many song cues go begging. When Teeny has an epiphany, when Mr. Travel finds a real moment of tenderness, when the revolution finally comes, there is a palpable moment of quiet after each. As the work continues on its path of development, hopefully Ricciardi, and composer Kelly Hoppenjans, will fill those gaps with ballads and anthems to lift the work, and the audience, to its feet.
The Travels – Book and lyrics by Aaron Ricciardi; music by Kelly Hoppenjans; choreography by Misha Shields; directed by Travis Greisler
WITH: Leslie Alexander (Mrs. More), Jamie Bogyo (Adonis), J. Anthony Crane (Mr. Travel), Holland Mariah Grossman (Teeny Travel), Luba Mason (Mrs. Travel), Matthew Patrick Quinn (Warren), Jose Ramos (Pinto ), Michelle Rios (Consuela).
Musical Director, Assaf Gleizner; Scenic Design, Christopher Heilman; Costume Design, Mira Veikley; Stage Manager, Joshua Quinn; At the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, 212-352-3101, Remaining Performances – Friday, July 25 at 5:00 pm, Saturday, July 26 at 5:00 pm, http://nymf.org/tickets/2014-events/travels/, Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.